You would be forgiven for thinking the Coachella Valley really only has one “season”, the six months when snowbirds flock to the desert for sun and fun (and crowded roads and restaurants).
The other six months? Too hot to even mention by name. From a distance, it can feel like we’re missing out on the range of the four seasons: the temperature changes, but the mountains stay the same.
And yet, like so much of the desert, there is more there than meets the eye while speeding by on the freeway. On foot, there are surprises waiting for those who take the time to search them out. I’ve been hiking trails in and around the Coachella Valley for more than 30 years, starting out in a backpack carrier on my parent’s shoulders, from palm to pines, cactus to clouds, and just about everywhere in between.
To this day, I’m still amazed by the wonders found hiding in the desert around each bend of the trail and canyon wall: springs crowded with lush ferns, plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth, and the signs of those that have hiked these trails before us for untold decades and centuries.
• READ NEXT: Hiking the Wonders of Murray Canyon in Palm Springs.
Still Hints of Fall Colors in the Mountains
The wonders I’m looking for are fall colors hiding away in the mountains, and they don’t get much better than along the Cactus Spring Trail in the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, just 25 minutes from downtown Palm Desert. The Cactus Spring Trail winds through the rugged Santa Rosa Mountains, too many miles to bother counting. Stick to the first couple of miles, from the Sawmill Trailhead to Horsethief Creek, for a great half-day hike.
My wife ahead of me on the Cactus Spring Trail with Martinez Mountain in the distance. Take note of Martinez as you hike, and when in doubt head toward it to reach Horsethief Creek.
From the trailhead, follow the signs down a short dirt road, through the junction with the Sawmill Trail. Look for Martinez Mountain ahead of you – a lumpy hill in the distance. When in doubt, head towards that mountain and you will find your way!
Historical Ties to the Valley Below
After just a half mile you’ll come across your first landmark - the abandoned Dolomite Mine that was the source for all those white rock roofs popular in the 1950s and '60s in the valley below. The exposed bright white rock, surrounded by ribbonwood and willows losing their leaves in the creekbed below, is especially striking early or late in the day.
The Harvesting Grounds of the Cahuilla
Continue onward towards Martinez, keeping an eye out for splashes of color - California fuschia and matchweed flowers bloom here in the fall, and buckthorn are covered in tiny red berries. The trail rises and falls through pinyon pines and junipers, and knee-high forests of prickly pear and agave. All of these plants would have been harvested by the Cahuilla as they moved up and down the mountains - this area must have provided quite a bounty!
A Dependable Water Source
in the Desert
After a little more than two miles, you’ll find yourself descending into Horsethief Creek. Keep an eye out for a white boulder on the left side of the trail - this marks the entrance to an old corral that was used by cattle ranchers, but (probably) never any actual horse thieves. Back on the trail, a few short switchbacks below you is the creek itself, a year-round source of water among cottonwood and ash trees in shades of yellow and orange this time of year.
Hop across the creek and ignore the trail post that points away from the creek - the Cactus Spring Trail continues beyond this point, but the trail is poorly marked and hard to follow. Instead, hop over the log to the right of the sign and have a snack in the shade of a large oak tree, and listen for birds and tree frogs.
Return to the parking lot along the same trail that brought you there. Fair warning: the return leg of your journey is more difficult. It’s hilly, and you’ll be going more uphill than not. The unique wonders of this trail are more than worth the effort!
A California tree frog (Pseudacris cadaverina), trying to ignore the author sticking his camera in its face.
• Trail Name: Cactus Spring Trail
• Find it on Google Maps: Sawmill Trail 5E02
• Length: 4.6 Miles
• Difficulty: Moderate
• Duration: 4-5 hours
• Cell Service: Yes (Verizon)
• Water: There is almost always water in Horsethief Creek, and often at other unnamed creeks along the way, all of which need to be treated to drink. The only way to be certain of water in the desert is to carry it with you from the start - bring at least two liters.